Crisis du jour: why French ministers are saying au revoir to Hollande’s agenda

Francois Hollande’s austerity measures and government overhauls are creating a deep chasm through the French political landscape that some believe he will not be able to recover from.

LONDON -- Just five months ago, French President Francois Hollande was mobilised to quick action when swathes of previous Socialist Party voters deserted in the country’s nation-wide local elections, leaving the party no more than 38 per cent of 36,000 constituencies.

Sacking Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault -- who had once polled as the most popular in 50 years -- Hollande effected to pass on the growing ultra-nationalism and discontent over the country’s austerity policies, with promises to cut taxes to ease the lot of hard-off households while flagging personal commitment to pro-business policies.

Overnight Hollande has again overhauled his government, for the second time in five months, ordering replacement Prime Minister Manuel Valls to dissolve cabinet and create a new one more unified with the direction he has set for the country.

In the interim, Hollande’s approval rating slipped 1 per cent to an all-time low of 17 per cent, with the added ignominy of being the lowest for any French president. Only 16 per cent think his party can boost growth, according to the most recent polls.

More worryingly for Hollande, a significant portion of his previously handpicked replacement government -- intended to support his top-heavy charting of the national direction -- has gone the way of those deserting voters.

Three high-ranking ministers jumped overboard today, after Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg spent the weekend hanging the Socialist Party’s economic policy out to dry on national television, with dramatic calls for an end to austerity and a shift to business-targeted stimulus.

"Today, the whole world presses us, begs us even, to end these absurd austerity policies which keep pushing us further into recession and soon deflation" Montebourg said, according to a transcript of the televised statement translated by Business Spectator.

“Serious and distinguished economists, directors of international institutions, chiefs of government, former and current, global ministers are all in concert in international condemnation of our politics.”  

Education Minister Benoit Hamon, who added calls for more distance from Germany, and Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti also handed in their resignations.

Their denouncement is particularly bad timing for Hollande: earlier this week he reiterated his commitment to a three-year program of progressive tax cuts funded by public spending cuts.

But the President’s censure has taken an extremely light touch. So far, he has not publically denounced the left-leaning Montebourg -- there was even speculation, before the Economy Minister resigned in a self-described "act of political courage”, that he might be able to retain an alternate portfolio in the re-organised cabinet (to be announced tomorrow).

The French media, famed for its sometimes scathing irony, was also less critical of Montebourg than it might have been. National left-leaning paper Le Monde placed the blame squarely on Hollande’s shoulders, with the headline The President’s last chance. The judgement of centre-right Figaro that “Montebourg is unfaithful to the times”, was backed up by a timeline of his seven public cries against austerity policy since the government took power in 2012. Under the headline Montebourg, the multi-recidivist challenger, it summed up “All the world knows this about the government”.

In truth, Montebourg is articulating what an increasing majority of voters also feel.

With French unemployment now at 10.1 per cent, up from an average 9.1 per cent in 2009, according to Eurostat, voters are growing ever more fed up with austerity -- whether it’s served with a side of tax cuts or not.

And there’s little prospect of improvement in the immediate future: France earlier this month slashed its 2014 GDP forecast to about “0.5 per cent” from 1 per cent previously, prompting Finance Minister Michael Sapin to declare growth had “broken down”.

Against this backdrop, Hollande’s struggles to meet promises of a 3 per cent national budget deficit -- the legal mandate for EU membership -- are growing more desperate.

A deficit target of 3.8 per cent by the end of this year and 3 per cent by the end of calendar 2015 -- ditched after the poor second-quarter GDP print -- was the second deemed unachievable by Paris, following a previously negotiated extension from a 2013 deadline.

Still, Hollande remains committed to income tax cuts for hundreds of thousands of low-earning French citizens by the end of the year, and a reform program including looser industrial relations regulation, with unspecified promises of more to come by the end of his term in 2017.

Whether this, or anything he can do, will ameliorate his citizens’ deep dissatisfaction looks unlikely on the current trajectory.

Hollande will not stand at the helm forever. But right now, as he does, he is gazing at two rapidly receding shores.